Progressing the Split Squat

Anyone that knows me knows that I am a huge fan of single leg exercises. There are reasons I like single leg exercises a little more than bilateral exercises. To me, single leg training is smart, it’s logical, it makes sense, and it’s more sport and life specific.

One of my favorite single leg exercises is the traditional split squat. The split squat has been around forever and is by no means reinventing the wheel. It’s an efficient and effective way for any athlete to develop the necessary single leg strength. It’s also a fundamental strength movement in any program that I would design, no matter the sport.

split squat

With the understanding that strength training always needs to be progressive, we need to gradually build to more intense exercises and repetition schemes as the program advances. As a coach, your strength training programs need to have a vision, an understanding of where you are trying to go with the actual exercise. The program is a process.

Because of this, it’s important to develop a progression for as many exercises you use in your training program as you can. When it comes to the split squat, a simple progression that I typically use would look something like this:

Phase 1: Goblet Split Squat Holds
In the first phase of the program would typically start with an isometric based phase, with the Goblet Split Squat Hold is the weapon of choice. Simply grad a dumbbell in the goblet position, lower into the bottom of your split squat, and hold the position for time. A simple progression over the course of three weeks would look something like this;

  • Week 1 = 2×10 seconds each
  • Week 2 = 3×10 seconds each
  • Week 3 = 4×10 seconds each

Phase 2: Eccentric Goblet Split Squat
In the second phase of the program, an eccentric based phase, an Eccentric Goblet Split Squat is used. As far as the setup is concerned, nothing changes from the previous phase. However, the athlete is now completing full reps with a 3-5 second eccentric (lowering) component.

  • Week 1 = 3×6 each
  • Week 2 = 3×8 each
  • Week 3 = 3×10 each

It should be noted that I typically have the athlete use the same weight from week to week for their sets. The increased intensity and volume simply comes from adding more repetitions each week at that same weight. Simply yet effective.

Phase 3: Front Split Squat
At this point the athlete is finally introduced to the barbell for split squats and there is no isometric hold and eccentric loading during each rep. The athlete is going to simply perform normal, controlled reps during this phase and from here on out. I also use the front squat position instead of back squat because of the carryover to this position with the hang clean and traditional front squat. Additionally, the front squat position allows for better posture and more core involvement.

  • Week 1 = 3×8 each
  • Week 2 = 3×8 each (increase weight from previous week)
  • Week 3 = 3×8 each (increase weight from previous week)

Phase 4: Rear Foot Elevated Split Squat (goblet)
Quite possibly my favorite single leg strength movement out there, the Rear Foot Elevated Split Squat is added for the fourth phase of the program. Though the Rear Foot Elevated Split Squat is still a supported single leg exercise like the front split squat, the back leg contributes less in the RFE Split Squat than Front Split Squat, making it a little more challenging for the athlete. Depending on the athletes strength, we can use the goblet position, 2DB suitcase position or even potentially a bar in the front squat position. However, most of the time the goblet position is going to be used with weight vests or chains added for someone that needs a little extra external load.

  • Week 1 = 3×8 each
  • Week 2 = 3×6 each
  • Week 3 = 3×4 each

Phase 5: Rear Foot Elevated Split Squat (2DB)
In the final progression of the program is by no means genius. During this phase, not a heck of a lot change. We have no moved away from the goblet position and moved to a double dumbbell position. This way of loading the exercise changes the demand on the core but is also a sneaky way to add some weight without the athlete knowing so all the time (same holds true when going from 1DB to 2DB SL RDL’s). In this phase we have also added some more intense rep schemes through plus sets.

  • Week 1 = 3×8/8/8+
  • Week 2 = 3×6/6/6+
  • Week 3 = 3×8/6/4+

The program incorporates everything that a good strength training program requires. It progressively builds the athlete by increasing either time, repetitions or weight each phase and each week. It also has a vision, a vision to be performing rear foot elevated split squats at heavy weights and with intense ‘plus’ sets.

In closing, having a set progression for exercises is crucial for continual progress in the weight room with your athletes. Creating, implementing, and sticking to your progressions can help make smart and logical transitions from one phase of the training program to the next.

I should also add that I still have my athletes perform bilateral exercises and that I am not anti-bilateral. Without a doubt, there are benefits to bilateral squats, deadlifting and other bilateral exercises and athletes still should be performing them. In a three day total body split, an athlete will perform one bilateral squat, one uni-lateral supported (various forms of split squats) and one uni-lateral unsupported (1-leg squat, skater squat).

Finally, this is by no means the only way to progress the split squat. For example,  I have played around with the idea of using the Rear Foot Elevated Split Squat during the isometric phase as well as performing   slideboard lunge variations once an athlete masters the split squat for more of a dynamic movement. The key is to progress in a logical manner to always place the athlete in a position to succeed and adapt to more intense strength training.

15 Random Thoughts

Here are another 15 random thoughts on strength and conditioning. Enjoy.

  1. Don’t be afraid to try new things. Some will work, others won’t. If they don’t work, ditch them. If they do work you’ve potentially stumbled across something good. You never know until you try though.
  2. Generally speaking, athletes will never have too much posterior chain strength.
  3. Coaches who understand why they do what they do, always out-perform a coach who doesn’t understand why they do what they do.
  4. Demonstrations are crucial to great coaching. Most people are visual learners. It’s hard to demo too much.
  5. Always remember why athletes train, which is to reduce performance related injuries and to ultimately improve sport performance, not chase weight room numbers. I’ll take wins and health over weight room numbers every day of the week.
  6. Steal ideas from people that are smarter then you. I’ll steal as much as I can from people like Eric Cressey, Charlie Weingroff, Michael Boyle, Gray Cook and Mike Robertson…and I have no issue with admitting it. “Good artists borrow, great artists steal.”
  7. Piggybacking off of the previous thought, it’s hard to grow by surrounding yourself with people who share the same opinions and ideas — all that does is confirm everything you already know. Embrace people who don’t share the same exact ideas and opinions as you.
  8. Pain is an indicator that something is wrong. If somethings hurts, don’t do it. It’s really that simple.
  9. Lactic capacity is how you build monsters.
  10. The worth of an exercise has nothing to do with the amount of weight lifted.
  11. “Stabilizers don’t do their job by being strong, they do their job by being fast.” – Gray Cook
  12. Programming should be 80% what you know works, 15% what you think works, and 5% of stuff that you have no idea whether it will work or not.
  13. You can’t become more skillful in the presence of fatigue.
  14. The goal of the coach is to eliminate the coach.
  15. Some exercises have become sacred cows in our industry. No sacred cows, just do what’s best for the athlete standing in front of you.

Success Secrets from Mike Boyle

As a former employee at Mike Boyle Strength & Conditioning, one of the perks was a free membership As a result, I have the opportunity to keep up to date with the happenings at MBSC, whether it be their programming, staff meetings, guest speakers, or any other content. It’s an incredibly valuable and key tool to my continuing education process.


Every once in a while I will go back and watch a presentation from previous years. A lot of times these presentations are by the likes of Gray Cook, Charlie Weingroff or Mike, as there always seems to be content in their talks that I forget, makes more sense to me now, or changes my current thought process. It’s amazing how many little nuggets that are in some of these coaches presentations and how much you miss the first time around.

The other day I re-watched a presentation from the Perform Better Seminar in 2011 titled “Success Secrets” by Coach Boyle. I thought it might be good as a younger strength coach to go back and listen to success tips by a strength coach that has had a huge amount of success in the field.

Here were some the key takeaways from Coach Boyle’s presentation.

  1. Sincerity Trumps All. One of Coach Boyle’s favorite quotes is “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” And it’s 100% true. Being extremely smart is great, being the hardest worker in the room is great, but its more important to be the nicest person in the room and care about the athletes that you work with. Being a great person and sincerely caring about the athletes you coach is always a recipe for success.
  2. The “No Asshole” Rule. In our business people need to want to be around you. You may be smarter then someone else and you may also be a better coach then someone else, but if people don’t want to be around you and spend time with you, you’ll never be as successful as you could or want to be. Be the coach that you always wanted as an athlete.
  3. Pay It Forward. Help as many people as you possibly can. It’s your job to help athletes get better and your job to help interns and younger coaches get better. More importantly, it’s also your job to be a good person. What goes around comes around.
  4. Consider Your Legacy. Being a strength coach isn’t about coaching for 20-30 years and retiring. It’s about changing athletes lives for the better. You have no idea the potential impact you can have on someone. “What are they going to be saying about you 10 years from now?” is a question you should ask yourself every single day.
  5. Be an Adapter. The best coaches in this field adapt before other coaches. Always be on the lookout for ways to make the program better and be willing to learn from anyone and everyone. Be smart enough to realize the the field is constantly changing, whether you like it or not. Go to seminars and steal great ideas from other coaches, but always be able to filter the good from the bad. Most of the best coaches aren’t innovators, they are just quicker to realize change is needed.
  6. Put in Your 10,000 Hours. Anyone that has read Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell has heard of the 10,000 hour rule. Simply put, great performers put in 10,000 hours of deliberate practice before they become great at what they do. Coach as much as possible, read as much as possible and learn from great coaches as much as possible, then maybe you’ll become one of those great coaches.
  7. Get people healthy, feeling better and performing better. No one says to themselves, “my back is killing me and I puked after my workout, can’t wait to go back tomorrow.” If you can get athletes healthy, keep them healthy, and improve their performance, you’ll have athletes that have bought into the program and want to train with you.

In summary, success is simple. Be a great person. Be the most positive person you know. Sincerely care about the people you coach. These are all things that anyone has the ability to do but few actually do.

My Favorite Exercises

Being a college strength coach along with working with adult clients leads to hearing a lot of the same questions. The one question that I seem to get asked a lot, especially by adult clients, revolve around what type of program they should follow. There are many different ways that you can go with the answer, but my general response is to perform a total body lift, especially since most adult clients workout between 2-4 times a week.

As soon as that question is answered the next question always revolves around how to set up a total body strength training program. Enter the wisdom of Dan John. I simply tell people after a quality warm up, perform something explosive, pull something, push something, perform some type of squatting movement, perform some type of lower body posterior chain, and add in some quality core exercises. I try to keep it as simple as possible.

Inevitably, the next question is asking what my favorite exercises for each of these categories are. My answer is different depending on whether we are talking about a healthy college athlete or a healthy adult, but there are some similarities.

Before I get to the list, remember I am picking exercises with a healthy trainee in mind. If someome was to have an injury, my answer may change.

Explosive: Hang Clean (athlete) & Kettlebell Swing (adult)

There is no doubt in my mind that the hang clean is the best explosive movement for athletes. The movement to is not terribly hard to teach and requires triple extension in an explosive manner. It’s a staple for all teams.

On the other hand, the Kettlebell swing is my go-to for adults. The swing is essentially an explosive RDL, resulting in explosive hip and knee extension. Furthermore, it is extremely safe when done correctly and relatively easy to implement with adults.

Quad Dominant: RFE Split Squat (athlete) & Goblet Split Squat (adult)

When it comes to the squat pattern I always tend to lean towards to rear foot elevated split squat. I am by no means a back or front squat hater, it is more that I continue to feel that single leg strength is grossly underdeveloped in most athletic populations. It is important to include all three types of quad dominant movements, bilateral (goblet/back/front squat), single leg supported (split squats, lunges, ect), and single leg unsupported (single leg squat, skater squat), but if I can only choose one I think you get the most bang for your buck with the RFE Split Squat.

As far as the adult population goes, I feel there is no need to load them with a barbell and squat – it just doesn’t make sense. Chances are very few adults have the mobility to perform a squat correctly, resulting in single leg work as the go-to move. RFE split squats may be a little aggressive for adults, especially early in their training. As a result, the Goblet split squat is my go-to movement.

Hip Dominant: Single Leg RDL (athlete & adult)

Just like our squatting movement, I tend to lean towards another single leg movement when it comes to posterior chain for many of the same reasons as the quad dominant reasons. The single leg RDL might provide the best posterior chain training from a functional standpoint, which is a good thing. The single leg RDL improves hip stability, improves hip extensor strength, and improves balance. Additionally, the single leg RDL in a slightly bent-knee position, a position often seen in gait (both walking and running) which again makes it extremely functional. Once trainees get familiar with the exercise, it can be loaded with heavier weights then one would expect with very little spinal loading. If we are truly trying to reduce injuries and increase human/sport performance, the single leg RDL seems like a no-brainer.

Upper Body Pull: TRX Row (athlete & adult)

Since we live in an upper trap dominated world, going with a row would be more appropriate then some type of vertical pull (chin up/pull up). When it comes to rows, the TRX row is king. Many people have postural issues (forward rounded shoulders) due to sitting behind the wheel of a car, at their computer, or even in class – rowing will help to negate these postural issues more then vertical pulling. It is also a body weight exercise, (until you progress to adding loads) which is another advantage at steers me toward to TRX row.

Upper Body Pushing: Bench Press (athlete) & Push Up (adult)

For competitive athletes, it’s hard to argue against the bench press in regards to pushing strength. It’s a tried and true movement that has stood the test of time. However, if you are working with overhead athletes, I would be more apt to go with a push up. I’ll also add that if you ask me this same question a year from now, I may lean towards the push up for all athletes. I have more and more respect for the push up (for various reasons) with every passing day.

With adult clients the push up is the standard move. It will absolutely shock you how many people can not perform a proper push up. You will find that generally women will not have the requisite upper body strength to perform a push up will men don’t seem to have the core strength to perform a proper push up. Regress people wisely and hammer away with adults.

There you have it, what I would consider my favorite and most beneficial movements for both athletic and adult populations. There are many different exercises that could be plugged into their categories, but I have found that these exercises are the most beneficial.